Huskies in the Fairy-Tale Forest
Text by John Harrison
Photos by Elena Krentovskaya, John Harrison
About fifty kilometres north-east from Moscow along the Yaroslav highway, not far from the old Russian town of Pushkino, in an area suitably called: ‘Fairy-Take Forest’, there is a farmstead-cum-dog breeding centre, specialising in Siberian Huskies, called ‘Akulova Gora’. It is open to the public. When I visited the centre in January, there was thick snow on the ground; temperatures had plummeted to minus twenty the night before. The drive through the woods on the last ten kilometres was incredibly beautiful, with the sun travelling along in pace with our car behind trees which from time to time shook their manes of snow off heavily-laden branches, causing cascades of glittering snow-falls. The countryside in this part of the Moscow Oblast, despite its close proximity to Moscow, is reminiscent of places a lot more remote
Suddenly we turn a corner and are greeted by the barks and howls of what seem like hundreds of dogs, which was rather frightening for a Moscow flat-dweller like me who does not have a dog and cannot understand dog-language, unlike our host and guide, Lubov Uvarova, and the people who live here.
Before long, Lubov’s son Sasha and his wife Masha, who look after the 25 dogs at the station start harnessing some to a dog-sleigh. This is a complex job. First the sleigh and the harness are staked to the ground, then each dog is brought out, accompanied by howls and barks of the other dogs, who seem to want to join the team. Each dog is put in its own position in the team, with the bitches at the front, as Lubov explained to me later, “because they lighter and faster. The dogs form relationships with each other, we get to know which dogs will not run with next to other dogs, each dog has his or her own character and we respect that. If we put two dogs which don’t get on with each other next to each other; one will run forward and the other will act as a break and want to run in the opposite direction.”
The eight-dog team is complete, the stakes are pulled out of the ground, Sasha takes up his position behind the sleigh and controls the sledge using his weight, and shouting out commands to the dogs which only they understand. I am given a seat on the sleigh, and the dogs pull out, quickly, into the forest. I have to hold onto the sides of the sleigh to keep my balance. I am surprised how fast the sleigh moves. The feeling of being on a dog-sleigh is something like being on a go-kart, you are close to the ground, there is direct contact with the wind, and the cold, and I am thankful that I bought a pair of warm gloves the day before. Every bend is exhilarating, the dogs don’t slow down, they are familiar with the terrain, this is their world, we are spectators.
I am torn between studying the weird abstract shapes which the trees covered with snow make and the dogs which are our living engine. Three kilometres are covered in what seems like a few minutes. These dog-sleighs can reach up to 25 kilometres an hour, Lubov Uvarova tells me later.
On the territory of the dog-breeding station there is a tent, kept warm with a banya-type stove which I made a beeline for after the sleigh ride. Over tea and cakes, I found out a little about the lives of the Uvarova family and their dogs here in the Fairy-Tale Forest.
Lubov looks after 25 dogs here with her son Sasha, his wife Masha and her sister. Masha’s father is the local forester, and his help was engaged in organising the route for the three-kilometre sleigh run through the local woods, so the whole family lives in the business day and night. But this is not just a dog-sleigh business, although that can be a profitable for the family if there is a good winter (something which mother nature has not graced this part of Russian with for a few years), particularly if they take the dogs and sleigh out to entertain corporate clients. However there is a lot more work involved in all this than perhaps meets the eye. Some members of the family took their first holiday last year for 15 years.
This is somewhere to come if you love dogs, to the point where you are prepared to share decades of your life with one. The family talks about the dogs as if they are family, and they are. Dogs’ moods, their language are the topic of conversation on that day I visited: Lubov chuckles as she recounts how their Alsatian was trying to howl like a Husky the other day, Masha says how important it is to part with the pups early to give the new owners the best chance of adopting the role of mother and father. Otherwise, Masha commented: “They come back for a visit after a couple of years and pay more attention to us to than the owners, and this can be upsetting for the owners.”
A lot of families with children come here, the children taking particular delight in the sleigh-rides. It’s good for adults, like me, who have never really grown up. Children under 5 years of age have to be accompanied by an adult; older children can sleigh independently. Being only a few hours out of Moscow, this is an ideal day-trip. If you want to do something different, if you want to lift your spirits on a dreary winter day, try this, but remember to book in advance. Contact AStravel for all costs, getting there etc.